Beilein remembers ‘fabulous’ time at West Virginia

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In the constant college sports cycle of practices, games and recruiting flowing quickly one season into the next, coaches don’t often schedule time to reflect on games and seasons gone by. For the first time in 45 years, John Beilein can sit back and relive memories. He did that in this week’s ‘3 Guys Before the Game’ podcast.

“I am doing great. I am just acclimating myself to a whole different lifestyle right now. Some days I love it and some days I need to be busier,” Beilein said.

Beilein was introduced as the WVU men’s basketball head coach in the middle of a tumultuous offseason. Gale Catlett resigned midseason in 2002. Dan Dakich was named the new leader of the Mountaineers but stepped down after less than a week on the job.

“The young men were lost. All of a sudden, there wasn’t any leadership. We had to provide that first. We had to do that first before we could even go on recruiting.”

Beilein’s first recruiting class produced a legendary group that would go on to play in an Elite Eight and another Sweet Sixteen. Joe Herber and Patrick Beilein were signed. Kevin Pittsnogle followed through with his commitment despite the coaching change. Transfer D’Or Fischer joined and fellow transfer Mike Gansey soon followed.

“We have to have talent. But you also have guys that know how to win. Sometimes, talented guys, as good as they are, don’t get that winning part. That winning part might get left along the way and they might be looking at how they are rated rather than did their team win the championship.”

And then there was a point guard who became a fixture in the WVU backcourt for four full seasons.

“J.D. Collins was taking a Greyhound bus from Houston to Morgantown to start his career there. And he started every game for four years. It is just incredible the impact J.D. had on that. He wanted it so badly he was willing to do anything. You find these guys and they make everyone else better.”

Just four games into his WVU tenure, Beilein secured his first signature victory. It came in a 68-66 win over No. 8 Florida in Charleston. Herber came up clutch with the decisive basket in the final minute.

“He hadn’t tried that shot in game or practice yet. All of a sudden, the game is on the line and I am saying, ‘No!’ And then I am going, ‘That’s my guy. Way to go Joe’.”

The Mountaineers finished 14-15 in Beilein’s first season. However, they qualified for the Big East Tournament with a win over Virginia Tech in the regular season finale.

A year later, WVU went 17-14, going three games deep into the NIT.

“I didn’t think that whole second year that we were making progress fast enough. But we won the games we needed to win.”

In early January of 2004, Beilein dismissed sophomore Drew Schifino from the team. He was leading the team in scoring at 17.6 points per game.

“I feel really bad about it because he was a young man that we really wanted to have a successful career. But it just wasn’t working. We thought it would be best for him and best for us to go in a different direction at a very difficult time. I am sure there’s things I could have done better during that time to make it work. You have to make tough decisions.”

In Beilein’s third season, the Mountaineers won their first ten games with victories over ranked opponents in George Washington and North Carolina State. With senior Tyrone Sally surrounded by multiple-year starters, WVU played their way to the Big East Championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Getting to the Big Apple proved a tougher challenge than getting through the bracket, after a snowstorm diverted their trip through Scranton, Pa.

“Four amazing days in New York City after the start of that, we were on the bus literally going five miles an hour, ten miles an hour, people flying off the road in this ice storm. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

After a 63-61 win over Creighton in their NCAA Tournament opener in Cleveland, Beilein authored one of the program’s most notable victories. It came in a 111-105 double overtime win over the Chris Paul-led and second-seeded Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

“I just remember the ‘Let’s go Mountaineers’ going from side-to-side. I don’t hear the crowd much. I heard it that night.”

In Albuquerque, WVU eliminated the Bobby Knight-led Red Raiders from Texas Tech and then jumped out to a huge early lead against Louisville, before falling in overtime a win short of the Final Four.

“The pain was caused by good stuff, that we got up so big. You can’t get up eighteen on a Louisville team with thirty minutes to go and think we have them now. It was thirteen at half and then it just kept going down and down. We needed the game to be about 38 minutes long and then we have a ‘W’.

“The Final Four was not in that five-year plan I don’t think when we first got there, let alone a three-year plan. After I looked back at it, we were very fortunate to get to that point.”

The 2006 season followed a similar script. The Mountaineers returned to the regional semifinals in Atlanta. A game-tying triple from Kevin Pittsnogle was quickly erased by a Kenton Paulino buzzer-beater as the Mountaineers fell to Texas 74-71. It was the final game for many members of Beilein’s initial recruiting class.

“Nobody knew what to say. How was this so good, but why did it have to end that way? It was an incredible combination of those two things.”

A much younger Mountaineer team took the court in the 2006-2007 season. Da’Sean Butler, Joe Mazzulla and Wellington Smith made their WVU debuts on a squad led by senior Frank Young. The Mountaineers ran the table in the NIT, finishing with a record of 27-9.

“I think most fairy tales have good endings. And it was. It was a wonderful five years of really a storybook with a really good ending to it. I was extremely proud the team that won the NIT Championship and went on to the Final Four. Bobby (Huggins) did a great job with them.”

Shortly after returning to Morgantown, Beilein announced he had accepted the head coaching job at Michigan. His five-year run at WVU came to a close.

“Michigan was a special place and we decided to make that one last move. But it did not diminish what a tremendous time we had. The experience my family and I had in West Virginia, you can’t replicate that. It was fabulous.

“It was five really good growing years. And we felt the program was in tremendous shape. That’s sort of where it came to and it was not about leaving West Virginia, it was about having an opportunity to go to a school like Michigan, which is another great school.”

Beilein inherited a Michigan program on probation and led the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament nine times in twelve seasons. They played in the National Championship game in 2013 and 2018, falling in the final both times.

In the spring of 2019, Beilein exited the college game for the first time, accepting the job as head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The 67-year-old resigned in February after posting a 14-40 record in 54 games.

If the upcoming college basketball season begins as scheduled, Beilein will return to the game this fall as an analyst for the Big Ten Network. There will be no shortage of suitors lined up if Beilein wishes to return to coaching soon.

“Once I am in those gyms again and once I start seeing the young men being coached and watching live games and practices, I’ll know. I think it will be very obvious to me by next February or March whether I want to do one more shot.”

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